* Targets own GMO maize in U.S. in 3 years
* GMO wheat not seen until after 2020 as R&D progress slow
* French firm eyes fragmented African farming market
By Gus Trompiz
PARIS, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Seed firm Vilmorin said on Wednesday it was getting closer to launching its own genetically modified maize for the U.S. market, but that the emergence of commercially viable GMO wheat take longer than thought previously.
Vilmorin, the world's fourth-largest seed maker, said a deal announced on Tuesday for a stake in a Zimbabwean peer had given it a stronger foothold in an African market with huge potential.
Vilmorin, controlled by farm cooperative Limagrain, is investing to develop its own genetically modified maize (corn) through a venture with Germany's KWS SAAT AG and said it expects to market the first products within three years.
The venture has approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a GMO maize herbicide-resistant trait and would probably launch products first in the United States, the world's top maize grower, Chief Executive Emmanuel Rougier told Reuters.
"It's one step in a long process but it means that things are moving forward," he said of the USDA approval. Vilmorin still needed approval from maize importers like Japan and the European Union to make a market launch viable, he added.
Vilmorin already sells GMO maize and soybean seeds but does not have its own patented traits, which means it uses strains under licence from competitors like Monsanto.
It does not plan in the short term to request approval for the cultivation of its planned GMO products in the European Union, Rougier said, arguing that herbicide resistance was less of an issue there and hostility to GMO crops was still strong.
Vilmorin is among those working to develop GMO wheat on a commercial scale for the first time, as the challenge of feeding a growing global population has focused attention on raising productivity of the world's most widely sown crop.
But Rougier said Vilmorin now projected a commercial launch after 2020, later than a previous expectation for GMO wheat coming to market this decade, due to slow progress in research.
Vilmorin is to take a 15 percent stake in Zimbabwe Seed Co from majority owner Aico Africa Limited.
It has an option to raise its stake to 25 percent at the end of 2014 in a deal which followed its acquisition in January of a majority stake in South Africa's Link Seed.
"We're gaining a foothold on a very important continent," Chief Financial Officer Daniel Jacquemond told reporters.
The market for commercial seeds in Africa is worth about $1 billion, while the global market is worth over $37 billion, and with sales currently dominated by South Africa there is huge potential in the rest of the continent, officials said.
Seed Co is one of the biggest crop seed firms in Africa and is market leader in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, while Link Seed is the fourth largest player in South Africa, Vilmorin said.
But they face competition from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto, Jacquemond said. (Reporting by Gus Trompiz, editing by Patrick Lannin)